In the late summer of 2000, Roberto Suro of The Washington Post took a call that changed his life and perhaps the lives of many Hispanics across the nation.
The Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts was calling to propose the foundation of a Hispanic-focused think tank. The discussion centered on a prevailing sense that there was a vacuum with regard to timely, nonpartisan information on the Latino population, Mr. Suro recalls. "We had a perception that a lot of good work was done by academics, but was slow to reach the public and was in a form not designed for easy use by policy-makers or the public. Also, a lot of good work came from policy groups," he says. "But there was space for the kind of work produced by nonpartisan think tanks in Washington for more enlightened policy-making and media coverage."
When Mr. Suro offered to head the think tank, Don Kimelman signed him up. Mr. Kimelman, director of the Venture Fund at Pew Charitable Trusts, oversees new and experimental projects by funding established nonprofit organizations. "At some point, we asked who would be an appropriate nonprofit to handle this," Mr. Kimelman says. "We wanted one that would add value, not just an operational partner. Also, we thought it would be great to have an academic partner, and one based in Los Angeles." Eventually, Pew gave the project to the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication.
Today, the Pew Hispanic Center (PHC) works "to improve understanding of the diverse Hispanic population in the United States and to chronicle Latinos' growing impact on the nation." Specifically, the PHC produces nonpartisan research on U.S. Hispanic issues. Mr. Suro serves as PHC's director.
The organization's research agenda blends analyses of government data with original opinion surveys and data compilation (see accompanying article, "A Year in the Life of a Think Tank"). Mr. Suro works with an advisory board of distinguished academics and former federal officials. He also tracks incoming calls from his major audiences policy-makers and journalists who request research.
PHC, which is based in Washington, D.C., also monitors the congressional calendar to anticipate information needs for public policy discussion. For instance, in advance of a bill to re-fund minority outreach programs in higher education last year, the PHC undertook a study on how Hispanics have fared in college. The September 2002 report revealed that although many Hispanics enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions, a large percentage didn't graduate.
"Until then, the focus was on recruiting and admissions," Mr. Suro says. "But the research showed retention was a significant issue. It caused a lot of discussion, and it's an example of how research can put an issue on the table. How [the issue] is resolved is what policy-makers and advocacy groups debate. Our job is to present it."
Already PHC has established its nonpartisan role in think-tank circles. "Roberto Suro has reached out to all the Hispanic organizations, saying PHC is not a Hispanic organization and he's not a Hispanic [advocacy] leader," says Lisa Navarette of the National Council of La Raza. "They only do research, but their research is excellent." Ms. Navarette also compliments PHC for soliciting input from organizations and the community when selecting research topics.
Sergio Bendixen, CEO of the Florida-based polling firm Bendixen & Associates and a member of the PHC advisory committee, likens the current state of opinion data in the Hispanic market to a desert. "You have my firm, the Tomαs Rivera Policy Institute, and a couple major universities the University of Texas at Austin and Notre Dame with large Hispanic studies departments," he says. "But they have limited budgets and produce limited results. Pew Hispanic Center has had tremendous success at getting information in a timely manner and giving it national media coverage."
As an example, Mr. Bendixen cites the poll his firm conducted for PHC in February on Hispanic attitudes toward the war in Iraq. "It was the first, and so far the only, poll on that subject," he notes. "It fulfills an important purpose."
In its first two years, PHC already has an impressive track record of working with other organizations. Partnerships or project-specific alliances have linked PHC to the Kaiser Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the Multilateral Investment Fund, and the Knight Foundation, plus academics from major universities. "We're a new and small organization, and it seemed to make sense to seek partnerships and alliances that would allow us to leverage our assets," Mr. Suro explains.
Because of competition among think tanks, PHC doesn't publicly announce its research works-in-progress. However, the National Survey of Latinos a collaboration with the Kaiser Foundation involving interviews with nearly 3,000 Hispanics on questions of assimilation and identity is an ongoing project. Results from the first survey came out in late 2002, according to PHC Director of Communications Dianne Saenz. She expects an update in 2004.
The original grant underwrites the PHC for three years, the longest time horizon for Pew funding. However, when the grant comes up for renewal in 2004, PHC can make a strong case for its renewal. "It began as an experiment, but we never thought [the Hispanic market] was a subject that would be exhausted in three years," says Mr. Kimelman. "We are very satisfied with research the center has produced."
A Year In The Life Of a Think Tank
In the last 12 months, the Pew Hispanic Center has produced nine major reports, studies, and opinion polls. In keeping with its mission to inform public policy, the PHC has made these documents, together with charts, data, and executive summaries, available on its Web site at www.pewhispanic.org.
Latino Attitudes on a Possible War with Iraq. Survey found support for the war was lower among Hispanics, particularly foreign-born Hispanics, than for the overall U.S. population. February 2003.
2002 National Survey of Latinos. "The findings suggest the need for new ways of thinking about the Hispanic population in this country. It is neither monolithic nor a hodgepodge of distinct national-origin groups." Conducted in partnership with the Kaiser Foundation. December 2002.
Improving the Educational Profile of Latino Immigrants. "The educational profile of the adult population of foreign-born Latinos has improved significantly during the past three decades. These gains, however, have not yet produced a notable convergence with the level of education of the native-born U.S. population." December 2002.
Billions in Motion: Latino Immigrants, Remittances, and Banking. Remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean totaled $23 billion in 2001, according to estimates in the report. Conducted in conjunction with The Multilateral Investment Fund. November 2002.
National Survey of Latinos: The Latino Electorate. "At a time when the rest of the nation is almost evenly split along partisan lines, Latino voters appear to straddle some of the sharpest divides in [national] politics today." Conducted in partnership with the Kaiser Foundation. October 2002.
Latinos in Higher Education: Many Enroll, Too Few Graduate. Report includes annual college enrollment levels for the five states with the greatest Hispanic population. September 2002.
Latino Growth in Metropolitan America: Changing Patterns, New Locations. An analysis of Hispanic population in the 100 largest cities, based on Census 2000 data. Published in conjunction with the Brookings Institution. July 2002.
Work or Study: Different Fortunes of U.S. Latino Generations. Includes data compilations on wages, employment, and education for California, Texas, and New York. May 2002.
Counting the "Other" Hispanics: How Many Colombians, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Guatamalans, and Salvadorans Are There in the United States? Alternative population estimates from Census 2000 data focusing on national-origin groups other than Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans. May 2002.